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With Buddhist centre, India looks to bolster cultural ties to Nepal

Sources said PM Modi’s brief visit to Lumbini — he is expected to be here between 10.30 am and 3.30 pm — is focused on bringing soft power to the centrestage of India-Nepal relations while also marking India’s formal presence at the holy site that’s barely 10 km away from the border.

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire , Divya A | Kathmandu, New Delhi |
Updated: May 16, 2022 7:48:01 am
The site for India’s Buddhist cultural centre. (Express photo by Yubaraj Ghimire)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will Monday travel to Lumbini in Nepal to participate in a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a Buddhist cultural centre to coincide with Buddha Purnima.

Sources said PM Modi’s brief visit to Lumbini — he is expected to be here between 10.30 am and 3.30 pm — is focused on bringing soft power to the centrestage of India-Nepal relations while also marking India’s formal presence at the holy site that’s barely 10 km away from the border.

The construction of the ‘India International Centre for Buddhist Culture & Heritage’ — to be undertaken by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), India, with financial support from the Ministry of Culture — comes decades after most foreign nations, including US, China, Canada, France, Germany and Thailand, among others, built their centres in Lumbini as an instrument of promoting Buddhist philosophy.

Officials in India’s Ministry of Culture said that the PM, besides offering prayers at the Mayadevi temple in Lumbini, will also deliver an address at a Buddha Jayanti event organised by the Lumbini Development Trust.

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A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday said the PM will be visiting Lumbini at the invitation of Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. “I am honoured to follow in the footsteps of millions of Indians to pay reverence at the sacred site of Lord Buddha’s birth. I also look forward to meeting Prime Minister Deuba again after our productive discussions during his visit to India last month. We will continue to build on our shared understanding to expand cooperation in multiple areas, including in hydropower, development and connectivity.”

The PM’s visit to Lumbini comes amidst China’s evident interest in Lumbini. Almost a decade ago, China had offered to build Lumbini as a world peace centre at a cost of three billion dollars, besides holding talks on bringing China’s railway right up to Lumbini.

Modi’s visit and his laying the foundation stone for the Buddhist Culture Centre — estimated to cost INR 1 billion and take three years to complete — will mark India’s first attempt to develop strong linkages with Nepal’s Buddhist heritage sites.

Modi’s helicopter ride from Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, where Buddha is said to have attained Nirvana, will terminate at a newly built helipad in Lumbini, from where he is expected to go to the Maya Devi temple, before laying the foundation stone for the Buddhist centre.

PM Modi and PM Deuba are also scheduled to jointly address a congregation of people, including lamas.

Though there has been no official word yet, indications are that “developmental issues” are likely to be discussed when the two prime ministers, joined by officials from two sides, hold a meeting before Deuba hosts a lunch in Modi’s honour. India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra recently stated that the two countries will pick up from where they left during Deuba’s three-day visit to India last month.

The two sides had discussed the need to sort out border disputes, especially the Lipulekh dispute that flared up in 2018-19, but Deuba’s three-day visit had ended without a joint communique.

Sources in Kathmandu said the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) will sign two Memoranda of Understanding with authorities in Nepal — one on setting up the Dr B R Ambedkar Chair for Studies on Buddhism at Lumbini University and another on a Chair Professor at Kathmandu University.

India’s Ministry of Tourism has collaborated with Nepal to build a trans-national Buddhist Tourist Circuit to trace the footsteps of Buddha, starting from Lumbini and concluding at Kushinagar. An international airport was recently inaugurated at Kushinagar.

Sources said the two PMs will discuss the proposed Buddhist circuit linking Lumbini with Kushinagar, Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Nalanda and Sarnath, among other centres linked to Buddha’s legacy. This will be in addition to the project to build the Ramayana circuit linking various sites in the two countries.

“It’s likely that the two PMs will also discuss ways to explore harnessing of the West Seti River that flows through western Nepal,” a senior government official in Kathmandu said.

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